Who was Stephen?

Steven is perhaps best known as the first martyr of the Christian church, introducing the heroic period of persecutions. He deserves as well to be called the first great apologist for Christianity, since it was this that brought on his death as a martyr (circa 36 or 37 AD). As his name and his relations in the church at Jerusalem seem to imply (Acts 6:3), he was a Hellenist, i.e. a Greek-speaking Jew. Thus he belonged to that class of Jews usually residing outside of Palestine who, though distinguished from the orthodox Palestinian Jew by a broader outlook on life due to a more liberal education, were Jews none the less, the original Jewish element predominating in their character, and who might be true Israelites indeed, as Stephen was.


Of his conversion to Christianity we know nothing, though there is a tradition that he was among the Seventy. As Stephen by his life and work marks a period of transition in the development of the early Christian church, so his name is connected with an important new departure within the organization of the church itself, namely, the institution of the office of the Seven (Acts 6:1), who were entrusted with the administration of the work of relief in the church at Jerusalem--the foundation of the diaconate (Iren., Haer., i.26; Cyprian, Epist., iii.3).

Of the seven men, all Hellenists, elected to this office at the occasion of a grievance of the Hellenistic Christians in the Jerusalem church against the Hebrew Christians, to the effect that in the distribution of alms their widows were being discriminated against, Stephen, who heads the list, is by far the most distinguished.

His Character and Activity

Stephen more than met the requirements of the office to which he was elected (Acts 6:3); the record characterizes him as "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5), i.e. of an enthusiastic faith and of a deep spirituality, and his activity was not restricted to the functions of his office; in fact while nothing is said of the manner in which he fulfilled the duties of his office, though without doubt he fulfilled them faithfully, the record makes it very clear that the importance of Stephen lay in his activity as a preacher, a witness for Christ; it is this activity which has given him the place he holds in history (Acts 22:20). In itself that is not surprising, for in the early Christian church every Christian was at once a witness for Christ, and lay-preaching was common.

The Seven from the first were occupied with essentially spiritual work, as also the later diaconate was engaged in something far different from mere charity organization. But Stephen was especially qualified for this high work, having been endued by the Holy Spirit with apostolical gifts, not only that of preaching, but also that of working miracles (Acts 6:8). In his freer views of Jewish law and customs, due to his deeper conception and better understanding of the essence of Christianity, he even excelled the apostles.

His Teachings

He burst the bonds of Judaism, by which the other apostles were still bound, by teaching that the temple and the Law of Moses were evanescent and that Christianity was destined to supersede Judaism (Acts 6:14). These freer views of Stephen, though possibly attributable to his Hellenic culture, were certainly not of Hellenistic origin, for just their promulgation is what brought him into controversy with the Hellenistic synagogues of Jerusalem. Though the Hellenist dispensed himself from keeping all of the Pharisaic additions to the Law, he always regarded the Law of Moses and the temple at Jerusalem as highly as the Palestinian Jew. Even Philo characterizes the Law of Moses in distinction from the laws of other nations, as stedfast, immovable and unchangeable, placing it on a level with the laws of Nature.

The true source of Stephen's freer views of the Mosaic Law and the temple was Christ's own teachings, Stephen showing a wonderfully ripened understanding of them, paralleled only by that of Paul some time later. Christ's words regarding the temple (John 4:20-24; Mark 13:2) not only led Stephen to see that the true worship of God was not confined to the temple, but opened his eyes as to the purely formal character of this worship in that day, which, far from being true worship, had become a mere ceremonialism (Mark 7:6), and in the words of Christ (John 2:19) he saw an intimation of the new temple which was to take the place of the old. Thus also his conception of the transitory nature of the Mosaic Law may be traced to Christ's teaching as to the Sabbath, the laws of purifying, the fulfillment of the Law and Jewish customs of the day (Matthew 5:20) and of a better righteousness than that of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 9:16).

As Christ had been drawn into controversy with Pharisees and scribes on account of these freer views, and as His word about the temple was used to frame the accusation against Him in His trial, so also in the case of Stephen. He did not hesitate to preach his views, choosing the Hellenistic synagogues for this purpose, and soon became engaged in controversies there. But, as the record says, his opponents "were not able to withstand the wisdom," i.e. better understanding, convincing knowledge, "and the Spirit," i.e. the deep earnestness and spirituality, "by which he spake" so convincingly (Acts 6:10; Matthew 10:19,20). Seeing themselves beaten, they took recourse to the ignoble method of declaring him a blasphemer and a heretic, by using the same foul means that the enemies of Jesus had resorted to, by suborning false witnesses to the plot, by stirring up the people against him, by appealing to their Jewish prejudices and to the scribes and elders, members of the Sanhedrin, and thus eventually brought about his arraignment.

His Arrangement Before the Sanhedrin

The accusation which they brought against him, through the introduction of false witnesses, included a twofold charge, one against his person, a charge of blasphemous words against Moses which would make him also a blasphemer of God, and one against his teaching, charging him with revolutionary and radical statements concerning the temple and the Law. (compare Mark 14:58; 13:2; 15:29). "Customs of Moses" (Acts 6:14) were the institutions that distinguished the Jews and that were derived from Moses. By his reference to "this place" and "these customs" Stephen was understood to imply the destruction of the temple and the change of the Law, Christianity thus aiming not only at the overthrow of the Jews' religion but the very termination of their national existence. The charge against Stephen's person was a baseless accusation.

There was no blasphemy on the part of Stephen, save by perversion of his words. The charge against his teaching was both false and true. It was false as an implied insinuation that he impugned the divine origin and character of the temple and the Mosaic Law, but it was true as far as he conceived both to be only of a temporary nature and serving a merely provisional purpose, which, as we have seen, constituted the peculiarity of his teaching. As in the trial of Christ, the judge, Pontius Pilate, read his true verdict, "I find no guilt in him," written on His countenance and whole bearing, thus here the record tells us that the judges of Stephen, "All that sat in the council .... saw his face as it had been the face of an angel" (Acts 6:15; 2 Corinthians 3:18); as if in refutation of the charge made against him, Stephen receives the same mark of divine favor which had been granted to Moses. It is a significant fact that Stephen was not arraigned before the Sanhedrin as being a Nazarene though at bottom it was the real cause of his arraignment. Thus also his defense before the Sanhedrin, though the name of Jesus was not mentioned until the very last, was in reality a grand apology for Christ.

His Defense Before the Sanhedrin

While the assembly was overawed by the evidence of singular innocence and holiness written upon the countenance of Stephen (Acts 6:15), the question of the high priest "Are these things so?" broke in upon the silence. It drew forth from Stephen that masterful pleading which, so sublime in form and content and bare of all artificiality, belongs to the highest type of oratory, characterized by its deep, earnest, and genuine spirituality, the kind of oratory of which the great speeches of our own martyred Lincoln were models. It is not so much a plea in selfdefence as a grand apology for the cause which Stephen represents. Beginning by mentioning "the God of glory" and ending with a vision of that glory itself, the speech is a wonderful apotheosis of the humble cause of the Nazarene, the enthusiastic tribute of its first great martyr delivered in the face of death.

The contents of his speech are a recital of the most marked phases of Jewish history in the past, but as read from the point of view of its outworkings in the present--old facts interpreted by a spiritfilled disciple of Christ. It is in reality a philosophy of Israel's history and religion, and in so far it was a novum. Thus the new feature that it furnishes is its philosophy of this history which might be termed the Christian philosophy of Jewish history. In appealing to their reason he calls up picture after picture from Abraham to Moses; the speech exhibits vividly the continuity and the progress of the divine revelation which culminated in Jesus of Nazareth, the same thought as that expressed by Christ in Matthew 5:17 of the principal agreement between the Old Testament and the New Testament revelation. The emotional appeal lies in the reverential and feeling manner in which he handles the history sacred to them all.

The strong appeal to the will is made by holding up the figure of Moses type of the Law, in its vital significance, in such a way as passionately to apply it to the fundamental relation of divine plan and human conduct. Thus the aim of Stephen was to point out to his hearers the true meaning of Jewish history and Jewish Law in reference to the present, i.e. in such a way that they might better understand and judge the present and adjust their conduct to it accordingly. Their knowledge of Jewish history and Jewish religion as he would convey it to them would compel them to clear him of the accusation against him as blasphemer and false teacher.

Martyrdom of Stephen

Such arguing and directness as Stephen's could have but one result. Prejudiced and enraged as they were, the unanswerable arguments of Stephen, based on their own Scriptures, made them mad with fury, and doubtless through their demonstrations they stopped the speech. But Stephen, ansported with enthusiasm and inspiration, was vouchsafed a vision of the "glory of God," which he had mentioned in the beginning of his speech (Acts 7:2), and of Jesus, whose cause he had so gallantly defended (Acts 7:55). Stephen standing there, his gaze piercing into heaven, while time and human limitations seemed effaced for him, marks one of the most historic moments in the history of Israel, as his words constitute the most memorable testimony ever uttered in behalf of Christ: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man"--the only place where this title is uttered by any other person than Jesus--"standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56).

Now the audience could restrain its rage no longer, and the catastrophe followed immediately. Contrary to Roman law and order they took Stephen, and without awaiting sentence against him, amid a tumultuous scene, stoned him to death, the punishment prescribed in Mosaic Law for a blasphemer (Deuteronomy 17:7; Leviticus 24:14-16). This recourse to lynch law may have been connived at by the Roman authorities, since the act was without political significance. It is noteworthy, however, that the Jewish legal forms were observed, as if to give to the violence the appearance of legality. Accordingly, Stephen was taken outside the city (Leviticus 24:14; compare Luke 4:29); the witnesses threw the first stone at him (compare Deuteronomy 17:7) after taking off their upper garments and laying them at the feet of a "young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58)--afterward Paul, now about 30 years old--who evidently had charge of the whole proceedings.

Stephen died as he had lived, a faithful witness to his Master whom he acknowledged as such amid the rain of stones hurled at him, loudly calling upon His name, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:59; compare Luke 23:46), and whose spirit he exemplified so nobly when, with a final effort, bending his knees, he "cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7:60; compare Luke 23:34). "And when he had said this, he fell asleep" (Acts 7:60; compare 1 Corinthians 15). The impression made by Stephen's death was even greater than that made by his life. Though it marks the beginning of the first great persecution of Christians, the death of the first Christian martyr resulted in the greatest acquisition Christianity has probably ever made, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

The vision of the risen and exalted Jesus vouchsafed to the dying Stephen presented Christianity to Saul of Tarsus in a new light, tending to remove what had been its greatest stumbling-block to him in the Crucified One. This revelation coupled with the splendid personality of Stephen, the testimony of his righteous life and the noble bravery of his sublime death, and above all his dying prayer, fell upon the honest soul of Saul with an irresistible force and inevitably brought on the Damascus event, as Augustine clearly recognized: "Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non habuisset." Judged by his teaching, Stephen may be called the forerunner of Paul. He was one of the first to conceive of the fact that Christianity represented a new order of things and as such would inevitably supersede the old order. Thus his teachings forecast that greatest controversy of the first Christian century, the controversy between Judaism and Christianity, which reached its culmination-point in the Council of Jerusalem, resulting in the independence of the Christian church from the fetters of Judaistic legalism.


The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain. R.J. Knowling International Standard Bible Encyclopedia